When I was two years old my parents moved onboard the M/V Anastasis, a hospital ship run by the organisation Mercy Ships, which provided relief and medical services to communities in developing countries. The ship was my home for 14 years. The greatest advantage about life on a ship was the opportunity to see so much of the world and meet people from all over. Needless to say, my childhood was unique.
As a teenager, I was able to spend time with patients on the ward, see the ship’s medical team in action and on occasion help out in one of the medical clinics in a nearby village. One day, we went out to a village in Macumba, Sierra Leone where there had been a measles outbreak. Two children died that day and it made a huge impact on me. It was then that I decided to pursue medicine. And so the journey began; I went to medical school in the Netherlands, with the desire to one day go back to Africa.
During medical school I was fortunate to be able to do two internships in Africa, one in the Gambia and one in Tanzania. Both internships taught me a lot about myself, and about medicine in the tropics. Spending three months in a district hospital in Tanzania enabled me to experience various aspects of what it is like to work and live in a developing country: the excitement, the cultural differences, the challenges, the limitations etc. It definitely prepared me for what was to come.
Shortly after completing a postgraduate diploma course in tropical medicine and hygiene at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, I accepted a position in Sierra Leone, as a community health physician at a land-based project run by Mercy Ships. The project was just starting and my job was to set up an outpatient clinic.
Once I arrived in Sierra Leone I realised I had a big task ahead of me. What did I know about setting up a clinic from scratch? Fortunately I was able to work alongside two brilliant national doctors in a pediatric outpatient department at an NGO hospital for a few weeks in order to learn the language, spectrum of disease, national treatment guidelines, etc. I also realized that child mortality in Sierra Leone was the highest in the world, with 1 in 4 children not reaching the age of 5. Based on this statistic and the example outpatient department at the NGO hospital, I decided to open a pediatric clinic. I never regretted that decision.
My initial commitment of 1 year soon stretched into 4 ½ years and the pediatric outpatient clinic was a great success. With 14,000 children registered, and seeing 50-60 patients a day, I knew that the clinic was meeting a huge need. And although there were daily challenges, I am very thankful for the opportunity I had to set up and run that clinic. After 4 ½ years however, it was time to move on.
I went home for a year, spending time in the USA, The Netherlands, and Haiti before deciding to return to Freetown to take on a new position; a new role with a new organisation, the Welbodi Partnership. And so, here I am, on a new journey. A journey I will share with you through my blogs.
Sandra Lako is a doctor from the Netherlands who previously spent 4 ½ years in Sierra Leone setting up and managing a pediatric outpatient clinic with an organisation called Mercy Ships. After a year at home, she returned to Sierra Leone to volunteer as medical coordinator with the Welbodi Partnership, a UK-based charity supporting the only government-run children’s hospital in a country where 1 in 5 children do not reach the age of five.